By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, June 21 (Yonhap) -- The successful launch of satellites by a homegrown space launch vehicle on Tuesday represents a significant leap for South Korea's space program, illustrating the country's rise as a member of the elite global space club.
South Korea, a relative latecomer to the global space development race, became the seventh country in the world to have developed a space launch vehicle that can carry a more than 1-ton satellite, after Russia, the United States, France, China, Japan and India.
The KSLV-II -- also known as Nuri -- successfully put a 162.5-kilogram performance verification satellite into orbit.
"We have arrived at a monumental moment not just in South Korea's science technology history but for South Korea's history as well," Science Minister Lee Jong-ho said in a briefing held at Naro Space Center.
The feat -- the first by South Korea's homegrown space launch vehicle -- underscores the country's technological progress in overcoming challenges in becoming a space power.
South Korea fired its first science observation rocket in 1993 and it has since invested nearly 2 trillion won (US$1.7 billion) to build the three-stage rocket with indigenous space technologies -- from design and manufacturing to testing and launching.
South Korea said it will improve Nuri's technical reliability and stability by making four additional rocket launches by 2027.
In October, Nuri successfully flew to its target altitude of 700 kilometers but failed to put a dummy satellite into orbit, as its third-stage engine burned out earlier than expected.
More than 300 South Korean firms participated in the decade-long project, overseen by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI). Hanwha Aerospace Co. took charge of assembling the 75-ton liquid propellant rocket engines, dubbed "the heart" of the rocket.
A few dozen workers from participating companies even stayed at the KARI for years for the Nuri project.
Despite being one of the world's major producers of high-tech consumer products and cutting-edge semiconductors, South Korea lags behind other nations in space exploration.
The size of South Korea's space industry was valued at 3.89 trillion won, representing only about 1 percent of the global market in 2019, according to a report published by the Korea International Trade Association (KITA) in September last year.
The global space industry is estimated to grow into $1.1 trillion by 2040 from $371 billion in 2020, the report said, as public and private investment has been on the rise to seek innovative ways of faster communication, broader satellite broadband and high-speed product delivery, among other things.
Through years of trial and error, South Korea has continued its endeavor in space exploration.
In 2013, South Korea's first rocket, built with Russian scientists, was successfully launched into orbit, following a series of delays and two earlier failures.
At that time, the Korean Space Launch Vehicle-1, also known as Naro, carried a 100-kilogram satellite into orbit atop the 33-meter rocket consisted of a Russian-built first stage and a South Korean upper stage.
The KITA report said the South Korean government should build a system to encourage private companies to invest more in the sector and offer them bigger state incentives, as the space technology is deemed essential to building infrastructure of various industries in the coming years.
"Innovation had stalled in the global space industry for many years. But productivity has improved and successful business models have sprung up, with many brilliant private firms recently entering the market," the report said.
The achievement Tuesday serves as a chance for South Korea to become an important player in the value chain of the space market, by being both a rocket manufacturer and a satellite service provider, Jung Gwi-il, the author of the KITA report said.
"South Korea's space industry is expected to continue to expand based on the virtuous circle of the space development ecosystem," he said.
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